'Earth: The Sequel'
New book makes a powerful point: The best way to head off the upcoming climate catastrophe is through 'a new industrial revolution,' which may not succeed without changes to incentives within the energy industry.
Sat, Nov 07, 2009 at 01:27 PM
ESCAPE: Some power plants have redirected carbon dioxide-rich gases into a hothouse that produces algae. (Photo: Jupiterimages)
Redhawk power plant in Arizona has an odd feature absent from the usual refinery: a greenhouse. Instead of letting carbon dioxide-rich gases escape from the plant’s massive smokestacks, Redhawk engineers redirected them into a hothouse that produces algae — “a dream feedstock for making liquid fuels.” Similarly, at the Shell Pernis Refinery in Rotterdam, Holland, engineers use waste carbon dioxide as a fertilizer to grow flowers on a massive farm — adding new meaning to the term greenhouse gas, as the Guardian newspaper quipped in 2006.
Earth: The Sequel is full of fascinating stories like these, where smart technologies add new meaning to old terms. “Waste,” “algae,” “greenhouse gas” and a hundred other things have become the happy focus of new energy technologies.
What lies behind all this innovation? A much maligned but very reliable human motive: profit. Through stories like Redhawk and Pernis — stories of innovation and industry — Earth: The Sequel makes a simple, powerful point. The best way to head off the upcoming climate catastrophe is through “a new industrial revolution” — one that uses new, emerging energy technologies in tandem with market dynamics to secure “the world against the dangers of global warming.”
Author Fred Krupp — longtime president of the market-oriented Environmental Defense Fund (EDF), which basically invented the cap-and-trade solution to carbon emissions — together with journalist Miriam Horn approaches the subject from a “power of business” point of view. The underlying mantra is that American ingenuity and industry are the only forces dynamic enough to transform the way we create and use energy.
The authors believe firmly in a cap-and-trade system. Krupp, in particular, is sure such a system can succeed, having already witnessed its potential in 1990s, as the EDF (and the U.S. government) battled against acid rain. The cap-and-trade system is a regulatory and market mechanism that caps overall emissions while allowing companies to trade (buy and sell) blocks of emissions allowances, with cleaner companies selling their unused emissions to heavier polluters. Cap-and-trade is central to the climate discussion, having been included as part of the Kyoto Protocol and adopted across Europe.
Earth: The Sequel argues that if cap-and-trade is widely adopted, cleaner energy technologies will be in demand and those who develop them will essentially redefine the energy business. The book goes on to explore — through vignettes of companies and individuals — the myriad technologies that will create a new energy future. Some of these technologies are brand new, some are new variations on old technologies, but some are downright old.
So why have these technologies not taken hold? Why don’t they make up a significant percentage of our energy supply? This is an important question, and the book gives an important answer: basically, there's no cost attached to greenhouse gas emissions by power plants, factories and cars. More importantly, there's no substantial benefit to those who reduce pollution. The bottom line: The “new industrial revolution” may not succeed without significant changes to incentives within the energy industry. Krupp and Horn’s espousal of cap-and-trade, and their call to Congress to set “a legal and steadily declining limit on global warming pollution,” is the only thing that can force “new” energy solutions into the mainstream.
Earth: The Sequel is no literary masterpiece, but it uses interesting narratives to a degree rarely seen in books about business or technology. The mentioned vignettes help engage the reader and explain difficult technologies. But the book's narrative approach also creates difficulties. These technology tales, being essentially self-contained, preclude a satisfying overall narrative. And, while each episode easily holds your attention, the book itself isn’t a page-turner. The reader may begin to question whether there’s much point in reading the whole book, rather than skimming for subjects.
More importantly, the same narrative traits that aid in the digestion of complicated technologies lead to a dearth of real analysis. For a book that's so clearly business oriented, it falls short of providing an investment guide to energy technologies. There's some discussion of viability for various technologies, but not much. The book offers a climate change palliative based on quantity of solutions, not quality. You may come away from the book feeling better about the future, but that's because the authors provide a wealth of technological solutions, not because you have a particular faith in any one of them.
Want more eco-literature? Check out our books section.
MNN homepage photo: enot-poloskun/iStockPhoto